Kindness is underrated, including at the movies.

It's easy to dismiss a movie as nice or lightweight when its exploration of the human condition doesn't involve copious amounts of tragedy or high-stakes drama. To some, those films aren't delving deeply enough into the true trials and tribulations of life. This kind of bias helps explain why certain cinephiles were surprised when "CODA," an inherently kind-hearted film, won best picture at the 2022 Academy Awards.

That brings us to "Cha Cha Real Smooth," writer-director-star Cooper Raiff's follow-up to his 2020 feature debut "S—house" that was filmed in the Pittsburgh area last summer and makes its debut Friday on AppleTV+. This film has the unenviable task of meeting the expectations saddled upon it by the $15 million Apple paid for its worldwide distribution rights shortly after its premiere earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival.

The good news for Apple is that "Cha Cha Real Smooth" was worth every penny, at least from an artistic perspective. Raiff's film doesn't have a mean bone in its body and treats everyone in its orbit like their feelings are valid, even if those feelings sometimes lead to unsavory behavior. He also expertly captured the anxiety and confusion many of us experienced immediately after college.

Andrew (Raiff) is an aimless recent graduate who ends up back in his hometown at a soul-crushing job. His return happens to coincide with bar mitzvah season for his little brother, David (Evan Assante). After taking David to one such event and helping him and his preteen friends loosen up, Andrew realizes he may be able to carve out a niche as a bar mitzvah party host.

While exploring that potential career path, he strikes up a unique relationship with fellow bar mitzvah chaperone Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her autistic daughter, Lola (Vanessa Burghardt). As his journey of self-actualization becomes more intertwined with theirs, Andrew begins to question just about every assumption he ever had about what adult life would look like.

Some will immediately compare "Cha Cha Real Smooth" with "CODA" due to their shared Sundance-to-AppleTV+ trajectories, lighthearted approaches, and authentic and nuanced portrayals of growing up. They're specific snapshots with universal themes, though this film ventures into edgier territory in its depiction of young adulthood.

A better comparison for this movie might be the 1967 Mike Nichols film "The Graduate." Andrew has a lot in common with Dustin Hoffman's Ben Braddock in terms of his difficulties adjusting to the real world after college. In many ways, "Cha Cha Real Smooth" might be "The Graduate" if that movie was made less than a year ago by a 25-year-old filmmaker.

Between this film and "S—house," Raiff has shown an aptitude for writing dialogue that works when it's delivered by actors of his generation. In "Cha Cha Real Smooth," he also gets to flex his screenwriting talents by crafting characters both younger and older than him who feel like like they fit the quiet, nondescript New Jersey town in which they reside. Nobody feels out of place, and the script gives every major player enough room to evolve and shine.

Raiff's first two feature films have also displayed the director's knack for imbuing every scene with either genuine comedy or supremely awkward tension. That the film is able to balance both so smoothly is a testament to his steady hand and his performers' abilities to gel with his cinematic sensibilities.

Andrew is a tough character to latch onto sometimes. He's clearly bright and charming, but he's also stubborn and uncompromising to the point where he almost can't help but make the wrong decision. Raiff is able to embody all that at once while making sure the audience remains invested in Andrew's transformation into a fully functioning member of society. Some may feel unfulfilled by where his path leads, but he ends up exactly where he needed to be all along.

The standout performer here is Johnson, whose Domino has to work through a lot of her own issues as a young mother with a fiance (Raul Castillo) she claims to love, though her actions indicate otherwise. Her chemistry with Raiff is off the charts, and no one will wonder why Andrew is so drawn to her. Even when Domino is making poor choices, Johnson makes sure that audiences grasp her underlying pain and devotion to her daughter.

Burghardt does a great job selling Lola's connections with the adults in her life and never makes the character feel like a neurodivergent stereotype. Leslie Mann exudes maternal energy as Andrew's mother, while Brad Garrett is all contented restraint as Andrew's stepfather, Greg — unless you mess with his family. Odeya Rush proves adept at making newly minted adult Macy feel just as confused as Andrew about entering the real world.

There's a moment toward the end of "Cha Cha Real Smooth" where it seems like the film might be veering off course. Luckily, Raiff is savvy enough to leave his characters in hopeful situations and with a bit more perspective on why it's OK to not have all the answers.

Simply put, "Cha Cha Real Smooth" is a funny, heartfelt film that is liable to melt even the coldest of hearts. Sometimes, the "nice" movie really does finish first.



3.5 stars (out of 4)

MPAA rating: R (for language and some sexual content)

Running time: 1:47

How to watch: On Apple TV+ Friday


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